Hours before a long weekend, the Doug Ford government announced yet another round of sweeping changes to development policy in Ontario. 

The changes, introduced Thursday, include an overhaul of planning and growth rules in southern and rural Ontario that critics said would weaken environmental oversight, contribute to the disappearance of vital farmland and mandate sprawl.

The changes are proposed in a bill called the Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act, or Bill 97, and a new provincial planning statement set to revamp long-standing approaches to Ontario’s growth. This marks the third time Premier Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have altered these rules since October. If finalized, the changes would continue the government’s dramatic rewrite of urban development policy, the most upheaval cities and towns have seen in the rules that govern them in decades. 

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We’re investigating Ontario’s environmental cuts
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

Stakeholders that were at a private briefing Thursday morning told The Narwhal officials from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing repeatedly said the goal was to create more “flexibility” in the planning process and boost housing supply. The Narwhal is not naming the sources, as they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.

Part of that flexibility will come from making it easier for municipalities to sprawl outward, as natural and agricultural land that was once protected becomes more subject to the whims of city councils. The government had already set the stage for these changes last October when it told several municipalities to expand their urban boundaries — overruling decisions in Hamilton and Halton Region to preserve thousands of acres of rural land, made after extensive community consultation.

Thursday’s changes are contradictory at times and lack clarity. The government is proposing rules to increase density in transit-rooted communities and downtown cores but is also making it easier for cities to build single-family houses pretty much everywhere else, including on land designated for businesses and industry. 

The government wants to incorporate “climate change considerations” in development plans and allow more high-density development near transit stations. But the new changes, like the old, ultimately remain focused on creating low-density, car-reliant commuter communities, generally conducive to big homes that require significant energy to heat and cool. Despite the promises of “watershed planning” and maintaining environmental protections, such unlimited urban sprawl can also eat up green space that naturally mitigates floods and sequesters carbon. 

“It’s so irresponsible and reckless for the province to impose such high financial and climate-fuelled risks onto people and communities,” Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner told The Narwhal.

Minister Steve Clark at Queen's Park
On April 6, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark proposed a fourth round of legislative changes aimed at accelerating development — the third since the fall. It contains cuts to measures meant to guard against intense development on farmland. Photo: Carlos Osorio / The Narwhal

A new round of broad, complex changes will put additional pressure on municipalities still adjusting to earlier, equally complicated changes, Steve Robichaud, Hamilton’s chief planner, said in an interview.

“Every time there’s a new provincial policy, we have to stop to review it. We have to report it to council, wait for the province’s final decision and then look at how to reengineer our entire processes to implement that provincial decision,” Robichaud said. “Maybe we need to put a bit of a pause [on these policies] and allow these changes to work their way through the system before we start making other large, system-wide changes.”

When pressed for the reason behind today’s changes, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark told reporters his “rationale is being responsive to municipal needs.”

“Municipalities want to be able to grow and they want the province to be able to respond,” he said, adding that the latest changes are coming “simply because we’re in a housing supply crisis.”

Here’s a breakdown of what’s in the Progressive Conservatives’ latest flurry of changes, and what we know about their environmental impact.

A photo of a corn field in Leamington.
Ontario’s latest proposed development policy would be a significant hit to farmland, making it easier to build residential developmentsin agricultural areas. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Ontario is upending pivotal policies to make it easier to build on rural and agricultural land

In Ontario, the various sets of rules that guide urban development are like a nesting doll. 

One law, the Planning Act, lays the ground rules. Within that, Roubichaud explained, there’s an existing provincial policy statement, which has long provided guiding principles for sustainable planning decisions across Ontario. “Things like you don’t build houses in a wetland, you don’t fill a swamp,” he said. 

Once you crack it open, there’s also the growth plan, a document which gives detailed population targets and ties infrastructure and funds to growth in development-heavy southern Ontario, particularly the area surrounding  Toronto and Hamilton. 

Sometimes these three pieces of policy overlap, sometimes they build on each other and sometimes they interact with other land-use rules, like those guiding Ontario’s Greenbelt. It’s all meant to ensure growth is fiscally and environmentally sustainable. 

If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Critiques of this system are easy to find. Ontario’s auditor general identified a raft of issues in 2021. Now, the critic is the Ontario government itself, which announced last fall that it would be looking to rewrite the growth plan and the provincial policy statement in particular, with an eye to speeding up approvals for housing development. 

Ontario: a halfway built subdivision seen from above
The Ontario government said its latest round of proposed changes to land-use planning are aimed at increasing housing, but critics said they were more likely to cause losses to farmland and green space. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

The Progressive Conservatives already amended the growth plan during their first term. They scaled back density targets and gave the green light to development in areas that weren’t serviced by municipal water or wastewater services, a requirement of the original plan. 

Now, their pitch is to merge the two documents together into one provincial planning statement, to guide “Ontario’s largest and fastest-growing municipalities with the greatest need for housing.” One source who was at the private briefing to stakeholders told The Narwhal ministry officials said the goal was “to streamline and simplify the land-use planning framework to help encourage more building of homes.” 

In the process, however, the government also made a few tweaks that make it easier to build on farmland and rural land. One removes rules requiring municipalities to demonstrate the need to expand before they push their urban boundaries outwards, meaning local councils could decide to rezone land without requiring evidence or studies. 

Robichaud worries that combining the two documents, one that takes a province-wide lens and the other that focuses on southern Ontario, will force all 444 Ontario municipalities to grow the same way, even though the 800,000-plus people in Hamilton have different needs than the 110,000 or so in Thunder Bay.

“The growth pressures in northern Ontario are much different from those in southern Ontario. The planning challenges are very different so how do you guide that with just one document?” he said. 

An aerial view of Mississauga's city centre, sleek high rises and the Square One mall, surrounded by sprawling suburban neighbourhoods.
Mississauga’s city centre is known for its high-rises. But much of the city’s dwindling land is eaten up by sprawling suburbs. Photo: formulanone / Flickr

Clark didn’t directly answer when asked about that concern at a press conference. “I believe that a place to grow is all of Ontario, no matter whether you live in the Greater Golden Horseshoe or not,” he said.

Taken together, the changes also amount to a significant hit to farmland, making it easier to build residential development in prime agricultural areas. 

Though farmland in the Greenbelt is technically still protected, Clark refused to directly answer Thursday when asked if he’ll consider requests to remove more land from the protected area. Since the province removed 7,400 acres from the protected area last year, landowners have already begun making requests to remove protections from their lots as well.

Ontario is strengthening a controversial land zoning power

The changes in Bill 97 introduced Thursday would make a controversial land zoning mechanism — minister’s zoning orders, or MZOs — even stronger. The orders are already a major power move, allowing Clark to override local planning processes to instantly change the rules of how a specific piece of land can be used — for example, turning land set aside for farming into subdivisions because Clark said so. The minister doesn’t have to consult the public before using these zoning orders, which cannot be appealed. 

The orders have traditionally been used in special circumstances only, and previous governments used them about once a year. But the Ford government has issued over 100 since 2019 and amped up the power the orders a few times over the years already.

Ontario Greenbelt: an aerial view of farmland, roads and houses
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark hasn’t answered directly when asked whether he plans to open more Greenbelt land for development in the future. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

The new bill would allow the government to hand down minister’s zoning orders even if they don’t comply with other provincial rules — like those protecting farmland and wetlands, for example. 

Clark told reporters Friday that he was powering up in response to complaints from municipalities frustrated by “provincial policies that delay new housing construction.”

Schreiner said the changes could allow Clark to circumvent rules meant to protect the public from “unaffordable, unsustainable and environmentally destructive development.”

“By further concentrating power in the hands of the minister of municipal affairs and housing, the government has found another way to green-light expensive sprawl development that undermines critical planning laws,” he added. 

Tim Gray, executive director of the charity Environmental Defence, said the change would likely allow Clark to ignore a variety of environmental protections. 

“Basically, scorched earth is possible,” Gray said.

Steel factories in Hamilton, Ont., on Friday, June 24, 2022.(Christopher Katsarov Luna/The Narwhal)
The Ford government is proposing to remove regulations that ensure cities set land aside for industry and job creation. This would make it easier for developers to convert them into more-profitable residential plots. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Ontario is making it easier to build houses on industry and employment lands 

Every municipality sets land aside for economic and business development to ensure, in theory, that residents can find jobs nearby. Given skyrocketing land values in southern Ontario, developers increasingly want to convert industrial lands into more-profitable residential plots. 

The Ford government is proposing to remove the checks and balances that currently ensure cities maintain employment lands — areas set aside for businesses, like retail or manufacturing. Employment lands close to highways will be opened to development applications. Municipalities have been given greater authority to do this as they see fit. 

One mechanism being removed is the municipal comprehensive review, done every five years to evaluate which employment lands to preserve and which can be used for other purposes, like housing. Also being scrapped is the land needs assessment, which considers population and other factors to determine how much employment land is needed.  

There are serious climate and pollution considerations to this decision. Reducing the likelihood of local jobs will likely mean longer commutes for many Ontarians. Without a real, simultaneous improvement in public transit options, the use of private vehicles will likely increase. As well, plopping residential neighbourhoods near highways and existing industry or former industrial lands runs the risk of exposing people to pollutants in the air and land. 

Shaheen Kausar, volunteer with Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW), and resident of St. James Town, Toronto, turns on the air conditioner in her unit.
The Ford government is explicitly telling landlords they must allow tenants to have air conditioners. But calls to make summer cooling a legislated obligation, similar to winter heating, have gone unanswered. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Local

Ontario is increasing tenants’ access to air conditioning, sort of 

Winter heating is considered a “vital service” for Ontario tenants, with landlords required to ensure a temperature of at least 20 C between September and mid-June. But there’s no maximum temperature after which renters are guaranteed cooling: as CTV reported last August, the issue has caused landlord-tenant battles and threats of eviction as summers get hotter, with the Ontario Human Rights Commission calling on the province to designate air conditioning vital as well. 

Today’s Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act falls far short of that, making no mention of instituting a maximum temperature. And while landlords are being told explicitly they can’t ban air conditioners, buying and installing them will be the responsibility of tenants, who must give written notice. 

Landlords whot include utilities in rent will be allowed to charge a “seasonal fee” to cover air conditioning. As The Narwhal and The Local reported last summer, the cost of energy can be as much of a barrier to low-income tenants as affording a unit to begin with. Unavailable or unused air conditioning increases health risks during heat waves, especially for seniors, those with existing health conditions and residents of older buildings that weren’t designed with air conditioning in mind. 

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Clark said this particular set of changes was a direct response to concerns from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “We’ve heard already from tenants that they’re very happy with the government’s measures,” he said.

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